Invalid Syllogism; working backward and getting lost

19 04 2010

If you follow the stream downhill from camp, point A,  then you get to the same place we got to, point B. We followed the stream downhill from camp, which is why we are here.

It stood to reason that following the stream assured a predictable path of travel.  If they followed the stream away from camp, then they could follow the stream back to camp.  While it is true that anyone who followed that stream with the current would eventually end up where they were, it was not true that anyone from where they were could follow the stream against its current to arrive back at camp.  Traveling downhill, the tributaries were all convergent.  If the stream split at all, then it always merged again a little further down.  Thus, one could reliably follow that stream and overtake anyone else who also followed that stream.  They would not veer from the path.  However, while the tributaries are convergent on the way down, they are divergent on the way back up.  What this means is that a person not paying close attention to the forks in the stream might not remember which one to follow going back.  In fact,  two members of our camping group did that very thing.  Traveling downstream was deceptively easy, as there were no decisions to make.  There is always only one downstream.  However, traveling upstream has its alternatives.  There are often multiple ways to go upstream.  The result of this was that at the end of the trip, when the pair never returned, Search And Rescue had to be called.  In attempting to work their way back to the beginning, they got hopelessly lost.

In social interaction, this very same kind of mistake is often made regarding the interpretation of other people’s actions.  For example, if I do not like you, then I will be reluctant to spend any time with you.  Let’s say I do not like you.  Therefore it stands to reason that if you invite me to your party that I will do my best to avoid going.  This is a valid line of reasoning, but I am already privy to my own motivation.  I didn’t really need to reason it out to know what I was going to do.  The real deduction comes from the person who is trying to figure out why I did not attend his party.  I was invited, but I said I was busy.  I was invited again, but I was still unable to attend.  Yet again, I was invited, but I still found a reason to decline.  The other person observes that I seem reluctant to attend his parties.  He knows very well that if I dislike him, then I will try to avoid attending his parties.  Therefore, he concludes that I do not like him.  However, working forward was like traveling downstream, and working backward was like traveling upstream.  While one motivation yields a predictable result, the motivation is not necessarily predictable from the result.  I don’t attend his parties, because he serves alcohol, and I am uncomfortable around it.  I don’t attend his parties, because he plays the music too loud.  I don’t attend his parties, because I have really bad flatulence, and I’m afraid of embarrassing myself.  I don’t attend his parties, because I’m infatuated with his sister, but I’m so shy that I’m afraid to be around her.  I don’t attend his parties, because I’m a very busy person with very many obligations, and I really have no time to attend.  Working backward from the response to the motivation, our lines of causation are divergent.  We may never really know why a person seems to avoid us, unless that person tells us, and maybe not even then.

But we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and we imagine the circumstances that would have gotten us from the motivation to the outcome, and we use that to determine what the motivation was.  Generally, we choose the conclusion that involves the fewest specifics, the details that we could never guess, or else we choose the conclusion with the most egocentric basis, the one that pertains specifically to me.  I don’t know what goes on inside your head, and I don’t know what goes on in your life, so my understanding of you is limited to generalizations that could apply to anybody.  I don’t have any way of knowing that you are overwhelmed with the burden of raising your kids.  I might have guessed it, but if I am not, or have not been, in a similar situation, then I might not understand.  What I can apply to anyone who knows me is that they have an opinion of me.  Add to that the fact that my whole world revolves around myself, I’m far more likely to assume that your behavior has something to do with me.

Tracing back a person’s behavior to that person’s motivation is tricky, so long as that person is not me.  It gets trickier if that person is from a different culture.  In Japan, the open expression of anger is greatly suppressed.  Therefore, it finds its way out in very subtle ways.  This passive-aggressive behavior often tries to say, “I hate you,” through the little things in life, like a drawer left open, or a dish left unwashed, or a task performed slowly.  Understanding the Japanese mindset requires amplifying their actions.  An American missionary to Japan once told me that her roommate confronted her for hating her.  She was shocked that her roommate thought she hated her.  The evidence for this animosity amounted to a number of trivial things that had nothing to do with the American’s feelings for the Japanese friend.

In contrast, the Russians are known for being painfully blunt with their feelings.  If a Russian hates you, then that person will likely tell you.  You simply don’t need to guess.  Consequently, I find that Eastern Europeans are generally easier for me to get along with, as my reticence does not cause them to wonder if I dislike them.

A Japanese man once invited me to dinner for the sole purpose of deliberately making wrong turns on the way there, spending the entire time trying to tell me not to be a racist (I couldn’t convince him that I wasn’t), and making me pay the bill (which I could not afford).  I barely knew the man, but he had decided in the few minutes that I had known him that I simply did not like him.  The dinner was his way of getting back at me.  For the life of me, I cannot fathom what I did wrong.  All I had done was sit in the same room with him for a few minutes without engaging in conversation.  He took that as an expression of dislike, I suppose.

Relating to different cultures is relatively easy, compared to relating to different species.  Sometimes people get bit by their own dogs because they hug the dog around the neck, putting themselves over the dog’s shoulders.  To us, it is an act of affection, but to the dog it is an assertion of dominance.  Some dogs don’t mind.  Some retaliate.  When dogs fight, the winner proclaims its victory by putting its head upon the other’s shoulders or over the other’s neck.  When a dog does it, the motivation is one thing, but when a person does it, the motivation is another.

Relating to other species is easy, compared to relating to something as vastly different as God.  What goes on in the mind of an omniscient God is an endless enigma.  The reasoning behind any action could have such a vast array of possible causes and motivations, that understanding him becomes an almost hopeless Gordian knot.  Most often the best answer to why God did something is, “I don’t know.”  As is generally the case, we tend to overlook the many details that we could never guess, and we opt for the explanation that relates most directly to ourselves.  A bad thing happens to me, and I conclude that God must not like me.  In so doing, I may have followed the stream uphill, and been misdirected to a tributary that went another way.  The fact is that I don’t know why bad things happen to me.  I might never guess the feelings he has for me, unless he tells me.

I used to think that the Bible was a form letter.  It seemed like a generic letter of love written to everyone, in general.  Then, it seemed like a store-bought greeting card, written by someone else for no one in particular, given to me by a God who loves me.  People are very egocentric.  If a speaker gets on stage, smiles and says, “I like you people,” they take it personally and impute that the speaker really does like them.  In truth, no such assessment could hold any meaning.  The entire group cannot be evaluated like an individual.  The same seems to hold true for God’s love expressed to us in the Bible.  In this we are at a crossroads.  If we ask, “Does God really love me?” we are left with life’s circumstances, which tell us nothing, and a Bible not written specifically for any particular person.  Tracing God’s actions backward to his motivations is an impossible task.  Without the moving of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, without God simply telling us in his own way, we are at a loss.

Jesus loves me,

This I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me, this I know, because he told me so, himself.  The Bible tells me that he loves the world (John 3:16), and I need his Spirit to make it personal.

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